I had the following conversation at least three times with strangers in St. George, Queensland:
Stranger: “Have you been to Lightning Ridge yet?”
Me: “Not yet, but that’s our next stop.”
Stranger: (Knowing glances at companions, raised eyebrows, head nods) “It’s…well, it’s a strange place. I can’t really explain it, but you’ll know when you get there. Oh, and you gotta go to the Chambers of the Black Hand. It’s expensive, but well worth it.”
These encounters raised my expectations for Lightning Ridge, but I still didn’t know what to expect. It’s just south of the Queensland border in northwestern New South Wales, and markets itself as the black opal capital of the world.
I’m not sure what makes it so strange. Maybe the dust and the heat worms its way into the soul of the town, or it’s the relentless swarms of flies determined to sit on your face, your food, your skin. The flies alone were enough to drive me mad, but didn’t quite account for the spectacular oddness of the town.
Here’s what did:
Car Door Tours
There are four self-guided tours set up around town: Green, Red, Blue, and Yellow. Normally you can pick up maps for $1 at the Visitor’s Centre, but our caravan park happened to have an extra one so our tours were on the house.
The map makes you feel like you’re on a treasure hunt, as you try to match it with each numbered car door on your route. There are crazy houses, elaborate structures made of whatever materials happened to be around. It reminded me of Burning Man, though I’ve never been so don’t take my word for it.
My favorite was the Green tour, which takes you to the area’s first mine shaft. The shaft itself isn’t the attraction; I was there for the vast views from the lookout and the fascinating beer can house.
Chambers of the Black Hand
I was super-skeptical about this attraction, but I *think* the name is a reference to coal dust. It’s a defunct coal mine that has been transformed into an underground artwork-in-progress by miner Ron Canlin. He’s been carving famous figures into the sandstone walls for over 20 years, using a jackhammer, pickaxe, and the occasional kitchen knife. Admission is a hefty $35 per person but I was too stunned to care.
I left with mixed feelings because of a run-in with the manager over racist comments and politics (a whole other story), but the whole thing was nuts.
Stanley the Emu
Outback artist John Murray (who I recognized from his work in Utes in the Paddock) has a gallery in the center of town, and one of his pieces stands 10 km out of town on the Castlereagh Highway. I insisted that we drive out to see Stanley and immediately fell in love.
Stanley is an 18m high emu built out of old VW hoods. He was originally set to be erected in Birdsville, but distance and bureaucracy made him a resident of the Ridge. Unable to get funding for the project, the community banded together and created him themselves.
Stanley has become a symbol of the town, but faces the direction of Birdsville, his ‘spiritual home.’ According to the plaque at his feet, he “is proof that what is too hard for others – is easy for The Ridge!”
I’m still not really sure how to describe Lightning Ridge—of course three days isn’t enough time for me to understand it—but I’d say ‘strange’ is accurate.
You’ll know when you get there.